“How many lights are there?”
It’s a question pastor John McHaffie and members of Sikeston (Missouri) First Assembly of God hear frequently this time of year. The church and community have partnered together to create what some believe is the largest Christmas light display in southeast Missouri, with thousands visiting the free drive thru display known as Light Up Sikeston with the Hope of Jesus.
Each year, the drive thru lights display begins on the Saturday night following Thanksgiving and remains open until Jan. 1. McHaffie says this year they have 74 different displays, each one created and sponsored by different churches, businesses, and organizations that serve the community of roughly 17,000 people. And although a lot of negative things can be said about the year 2020, McHaffie explains that the light display was a positive that resulted from that year of challenges.
“We had just gone through another round of COVID going through the community and people were feeling the stress,” McHaffie says, “when a lady in our church, LaRae Long, called me with an idea of how to use the church property over Christmas to lift up and encourage our community.”
The property Long is referring to is the 14 acres the church had acquired and had made plans to build on more than 20 years ago. A softball field was added, a pavilion was built, and 36 electrical outlets were wired along a 3/4-mile walking path. But over the years, building plans were placed on hold and the property fell dormant.
“Every day I drive by that property on the way to work,” LaRae says, “and I use that drive time to pray. I was just praying, asking God how we could use that property when He reminded me of the Christmas lights display we had driven to Arkansas to drive through last year . . . then came the thought, Why couldn’t we do that here?”
After meeting with McHaffie and forming a small committee, a plan was set into motion — LaRae began contacting churches, businesses, and organizations serving the community about putting up a display for Sikeston’s own Christmas lights drive through. Her husband, Jeff, and McHaffie checked the property.
“We had one problem,” says Jeff, who has a degree in electronic engineering, “of the 36 outlets placed around the property, when we checked them, only one worked.”
McHaffie says that for weeks, volunteers from the church struggled to get the outlets working in time for the light display, managing to get enough of them operational for opening.
“The first year (2020), we had 24 lighted displays that people could drive along the path and see,” McHaffie says. “But we wondered every night whether or not the lights would actually come on.”
Jeff recalls the second year with clarity, when the event increased to 42 displays. He explains that year they had to bring out a licensed electrician to work on the wiring so they could host Light up Sikeston.
“We spent a lot of time looking for shorts,” he says. “In the end, we decided to just leave the lights on because we were scared to turn them off because we really didn’t know if they would come back on.”
With Light Up Sikeston with the Hope of Jesus Christmas display gaining increasing support and buy-in from the community, there was no longer any doubt that the wiring issue had to be addressed if the event was going to grow — or even continue.
“A wiring manufacturer donated half the wire we needed,” McHaffie says, “and then we did fundraisers to purchase and install the rest.”
The Longs also helped fundraise to purchase and install thousands of pathway lights to guide drivers along the course and assist with traffic flow. McHaffie laughs, recalling how the first two years, people weren’t always sure where to drive, so some just drove where they pleased.
With the new wiring installed, a path marked by string lights, and the fear of electrical failure put to rest, this year, 74 organizations signed up for a display space — and the community is coming out in droves to see them.
“It’s a free, self-guided tour,” McHaffie says, “and over the first 16 days, more than 2,300 cars have come through.”
Although free, McHaffie says they are also “unashamedly” asking for donations.
“This year, we’re giving 100% of the donations to the Warming Center of Spread Hope Now,” he says. “Anytime the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below, the center is opened to the homeless and provides them with warm meals, a warm place to sleep, a shower, and access to washers and dryers. We hope to raise at least $1,600 this year for the center.”
McHaffie adds that he and others go through the displays regularly to make sure there are no problems and people can fully enjoy them.
“I drive through twice a day, checking on the displays,” McHaffie says, noting that early on the windy, rainy weather proved challenging. “But the participants have been really good at taking care of their displays. This event has really brought the community together in so many different ways.”
And now, every Saturday night, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., attendance swells as volunteers from Sikeston First Assembly along with volunteers at the individual displays greet guests and offer them small treats such as candy canes or popcorn. Live animals are also brought in and one vendor passes out the choice of free hot chocolate or a green concoction called “Grinch juice,” which has proven quite popular with the kids.
LaRae and Jeff say they both look forward to Saturday nights.
“We stand out there on Saturday nights and greet carloads of people,” LaRae says, “and just to hear the kids squealing with delight and the adults oooing and ahhhing, it’s such a bright spot in our dark world.”
One might think this could be viewed as a grandiose scheme to promote the church, rather than to uplift Jesus. However, McHaffie sets that the record straight.
“You won’t find one sign with the name of Sikeston First Assembly on it,” McHaffie says. “What you will find are numerous nativity scenes and in the center of it all, the lighted name of Jesus in giant 8-foot metal letters — because that’s what we want to proclaim, the hope of Jesus . . . the reason for the season is not about religion, it’s about Him.”
Although Sikeston First Assembly averages only about 80 people on Sundays, LaRae — who makes the contacts and signs organizations up for Light Up Sikeston — says the effort has helped unify the congregation, bringing them closer together as they have worked diligently to make the event a success. She also notes that at least two more organizations have contacted her to add a display to the tour this year, bringing the total to 76!
“There’s a lot of sweat equity in this – blood, sweat, and tears,” Jeff says. “Even though the wiring is fixed, we still keep the lights on all the time because there are a lot of people who work odd shifts who have told us how much they enjoy driving by it at all hours of the night.”
The Longs and McHaffie also enjoy overhearing people in the community talk about Light Up Sikeston, with few if any realizing they have played key roles in its creation.
“You don’t realize the impact Light Up Sikeston has until you’re somewhere and they say, ‘Hey, have you seen Light Up Sikeston?’ and they don’t even know you were a part of it,” LaRae says. “You just smile, knowing that God is reaching the people He wants to reach — God’s putting who He needs to be there, there, and all we have to do is love them.”
But back to the question initially asked — How many lights? With 1.5 miles of path lights, scores of lit trees, a 65-foot light tunnel, numerous nativities, Santas and sleighs, Grinch village, reindeer, snowmen, candy canes, presents, and the list goes on, McHaffie admits that when the semi-truck pulled in decorated with lights, they gave up counting. However, he estimates the number of individual lights in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps half-a-million or more — all to help others focus on Christmas and shed more light on the name of Jesus.